I was in Stockholm recently, and in the three days I spent in this city, my presence set off the city’s alarms without fail. The alarm systems of stores, that is. Every single time I went into a store, the alarm would go off. And every time I left, the same thing, beeeeep.
“You probably purchased something at another store and they forgot to remove the magnet,” said the courteous saleswoman.
“I haven’t bought anything . . .”
“Then maybe you have an iPod?”
“No, I haven’t got an iPod!”
“A cell phone, perhaps?”
I left the cell phone with the saleswoman and stepped out the door.
“There it goes beeping again,” said the saleswoman.
“What should I do?” I asked, anxious.
“Relax,” she said kindly. “All the foreigners are beeping.”
I suddenly felt a rush of relief. The Stockholm alarm systems had an almost epiphanic effect, like the declaration of a long-sought truth. Of course, I am a foreigner! Why was I so surprised by this? Hadn’t I left my home country to become a foreigner? I have been living abroad for more than 10 years now, and these past 10 years as I have changed countries, I have adopted each one with my whole heart, believing that integration is the only way. But it was only recently that the nice Stockholm saleswoman lifted the burden from my shoulders. Why integration? I am a foreigner!
Home, for me, is where I am allowed to be a foreigner. The famous Italian Italo Calvino said something along those lines. So let me be a foreigner. It is a costly choice on my part. You have your hairdresser, your massage therapist, your butcher, your childhood friends, your family and family get-togethers, your spots, your hangouts, your waiters, and your dentists, all of them yours because you are at home. I am the one who has no hairdresser of her own. I go through life with awful haircuts.
Allow me, therefore, to remain in ignorance of how the country in which I live is organized, who the minister of foreign affairs is, and who the minister of the interior is. I knew all those things far too well back home, which is why I chose to be a foreigner. Don’t despise me because I haven’t read the work of the local literary genius, the loss is all mine. I am the one who pays the bill.
But have no fear, when push comes to shove I’ll know—and I’ll know what to do. It was thanks to that reflex that I became a foreigner in the first place. My small private statistics show that if you stumble and fall, I will be the one to offer you a hand sooner than “yours,” your own local people, will. Because when I needed help, it was “foreigners” who lent me a hand.
Excerpted from Nobody’s Home, a collection of essays written by Dubravka Ugresic, translated by Ellen Elias-Bursac, and published last fall by Open Letter Books; www.openletter books.org. This essay also appeared in A Public Space(#6); www.apublicspace.org.